PDN Gear Guide Product Test: Does USB 3.0 Live Up to the Hype?

Feb 1, 2010
By Bob Rose

USB 3.0

Digital camera files get larger every year and computer processors get faster every eighteen months but our ability to move data from memory cards to hard drives often doesn’t match this pace of growth.

For photographers who feel as if they waste a lot of time watching progress bars and hourglasses waiting for uploads and downloads – this is your year because USB 3.0 is finally here. This next evolutionary step in USB, also called SuperSpeed, claims data speed transfers almost ten times faster than what we’re used to.

Though only a handful of USB 3.0 products have been announced, they're now shipping and more are soon to come.

USB 1.0 or Universal Serial Bus was released in 1995 and it quickly became an industry standard. It got a 20X speed upgrade to USB 2.0 in 2002 and today is estimated to be in over six billion computers and other electronic devices.

USB 3.0 is designed to deliver data transfer speeds of up to 4.8Gbps, and is backward compatible to USB 2.0 (at the slower speeds) just like USB 2.0 is backward compatible to USB 1.0.

To give you some perspective on the six most common external interfaces today I’ve listed them along with their estimated maximum specified data transfer speed:

USB 1.0 = 12Mbps
USB 2.0 = 480Mbps
USB 3.0 = 4.8Gbps
FW400 = 400Mbps
FW800 = 800Mbps
eSATA = 3 Gbps

Unfortunately, most of us have learned that in the real world we rarely experience performance that lives up to the full promise of specifications. Fortunately I was able to test some of these claims after getting my hands on a production Western Digital (WD) My Book 3.0 External Drive ($179) and Seagate Black Armor PS 110 Portable Drive ($179), both in kit form with the respective USB 3.0 PCIe adapter card, PC card adapter and appropriate cables.

Here's what I thought.

Wiring Them Up
Set up of the Western Digital My Book 3.0 was easy for me because I'm already familiar with the Western Digital My Book Studio which has USB 2.0, FW800 and eSATA connectors. This natural addition to the “My Book” family shares its predecessor's look with smooth curved lines and a functional (but not droppable), well ventilated plastic housing.

I missed the little vertical blue light strip on the front from the previous model that told me the drive was in action but gladly traded it for the hope of greater speeds.

To make the computer connection possible, just slide the USB 3.0 PCIe (gen2) adapter card into an available slot in the computer and install the drivers from the included CD. A USB 3.0 A-to-MicroB cable connects the drive to the adapter card and a multi-voltage AC adapter provides the power (which is turned on by a switch on the back).

I was in business with a speedy 1TB drive on the desktop, now for the portable.

The Seagate Black Armor PS110 consists of a 12.5mm slim but well built black anodized housing complete with a 7200rpm (not a 5400rpm – thank you) 500GB drive and a USB 3.0 MicroB connector. If you’re planning on using this at maximum speed with your laptop then you’ll need to make sure it has an ExpressCard slot to accept the PC card adapter.

The slight twist here is that you need to first install the PC card adapter driver which is on the hard drive itself. Connect the PS110 to any available USB port on the laptop using the provided cable -- the backward compatibility message will tell you that you could be running faster, but you knew that already and that’s why you’re installing a small driver file.

Once this is done you can unplug the drive and insert the PC card, then complete the install by plugging the data cable to the hard drive and the power cable to a powered USB port on the laptop. Fortunately this is easy and takes longer to write about it than it does to actually do it.

Note here that the PS110 comes with some interesting secure backup software which I didn’t get a chance to play with.

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